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Jennifer Gennari

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People Places: What If We Used Parking Spaces for Something Else?

Posted: 09/14/11 04:34 PM ET

Earth, unfortunately for humans, is only about 29 percent land, and not all of that is inhabitable. Given the scarcity of livable space, you'd think we'd be more careful how we use it. Why, then, do we devote so much land to parking?

Recall a favorite destination -- perhaps Napa Square, Lake Merritt, or downtown Mountain View. Wherever you live, you're probably envisioning a beautiful place, and not a strip mall parking lot or a six-lane thoroughfare lined with parked cars. Asphalt isn't something to applaud. Instead of endless pavement for cars, our limited land could be used for something else.

Imagine! Public art, benches and trees, café tables. Places people want to go.

Re-imagining the average 6-foot by 17-foot parking space has gone global. On Friday, September 16, people everywhere will celebrate PARK(ing) Day by temporarily transforming metered parking spots into instant parks. Founded in 2005 by Rebar, a San Francisco-based art and design studio, the annual event challenges people to rethink the way streets are used.

We think cities should plan with people in mind.

In this country of abundance, we haven't perceived of land as a scarce resource, but maybe we should. Other nations have clearly defined countrysides and cities -- sometimes enforced by literal walls or moats. By drawing a mental circle around a city -- leaving greenbelts alone -- every square foot becomes land that is used wisely. That's when you have to question why we prioritize land for parking.

Instead, let's use our limited urban land to create economically thriving neighborhoods where people want to walk, bike, and gather in attractive shared space. What if we had pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and trees instead of so many parking spots? Cities can transform neighborhoods -- just look at Old Pasadena in Southern California, Columbia Heights in Washington, D.C., or Redwood City in the Bay Area.

Most people think abundant parking brings business success. Yet, as many Shoupistas know, the high cost of free parking is hurting cities. Controlling the price and amount of parking is the solution, according to parking prophet and UCLA Professor Donald Shoup. When priced right and managed, some parking can bring revenue to a city and attract more strolling customers to shops. Old Pasadena invested meter revenue directly back to the streets, with tangible results-- now the downtown is thriving.

Don't misunderstand -- we don't think we should remove all parking. Cars are handy for moving large objects, small children, wheelchairs, and groceries. Yet, when parking is too plentiful, driving becomes the default choice. We become complacent about driving everywhere; we forget there are other ways to get around. And what's more, we forget there is land under that pavement, land that could be used differently.

A playground? A garden? A concert venue? [watch this video to imagine!] All these transformations and more will be near you this Friday, September 16. Visit San Fernando Street in San Jose, Fifth Street in Santa Rosa, Grand Avenue in Oakland, Locust Street in Walnut Creek or find one near you.

Let's plan for people first. Everyone loves wide, tree-lined sidewalks and outdoor café tables. Adding bike lanes and easily accessible transit stops will draw people to the neighborhood.

And let's face it, too much pavement smothers paradise.